It wasn’t easy to hear Tao Xiaodong show weakness.
He had a tough personality that only liked to talk about glad tidings and none of his worries.
Even this voicing of his vulnerability evoked a sense of depression.
It had been involuntarily blurted out due to the force of the emotions he was suppressing at that moment.
In other circumstances, he might not have made such an admission.
After that night, Tao Xiaodong started to get busy with work throughout the day, never taking care to heed the time that he returned home and never taking any breaks during the day.
He worked from morning to night without rest, trying to rush out at least a job a day—multiple if the tattoos were small.
If he had no clients scheduled, he would be out somewhere doing something or other, and no one could get ahold of him.
He’d even discussed with Da Huang about closing down his other two branches, the places of his beginnings.
The discussion threw Da Huang for a loop, who stewed in silence the rest of the day.
They had three parlours in total, marking the trajectory of Tao Xiaodong’s career from a nobody to his present fame.
The newest studio was more than a thousand square metres and had the space to hold everything, but the other two studios were kept with no intention of liquidating the assets. Da Huang knew that Tao Xiaodong couldn’t bear to move out owing to sentimentality.
While the two studios were not cheap to upkeep, the expense was not significant.
If one could keep memoirs of the past, a little bit of wilfulness could do no harm.
“Stop, what is going on with you” Da Huang smoothed his hair, palm roughing up the hair at the back of his head.
He flung his hand away and said, “Share it with me.”
The two of them were in Tao Xiaodong’s lounge upstairs.
Tao Xiaodong got up to get an ashtray, then sat down and lit a cigarette.
“I’m tired.” Tao Xiaodong seldom came up to rest.
He didn’t often sleep at the studio, either.
Tao Xiaodong bit the cigarette filter, glancing at the time.
“I’ve been doing this all my life.
I’m burning out.”
Da Huang said, “Take a break if you’re tired.
You’re still travelling the world as always.”
Tao Xiaodong shook his head.
He had indeed become gaunter.
With the cigarette hanging from between his lips and sitting here like that, he actually appeared slightly haggard.
“What are you going to do if not this” Da Huang asked him.
“Just think about what has been driving you all this while.
How you almost lost your life in Africa, the years you spent in America and Europe honing your craft, and the hours you put into getting where you are today.
Are you really going to write off all that effort with an excuse today”
The cigarette ash was on the verge of dropping.
Tao Xiaodong flicked the cigarette on the ashtray.
He didn’t respond, smoking silently.
Tao Xiaodong wasn’t the type to pretentiously claim that he had done enough and that he was tired.
He had always been strong, able to put in the hard work and expend the energy, struggling fiercer the more tired he got.
Da Huang, who had built a business with him, wouldn’t fail to understand this.
“Don’t keep it from me.
If there’s anything wrong, spit it out.”
Tao Xiaodong said “it’s nothing.”
“Did something happen to Xiao Nan” Da Huang asked.
“Does Xiao Nan want to study elsewhere Are you relocating”
Tao Xiaodong waved him off.
“Nothing to do with that.”
Da Huang knew his personality type; it was rare to hear him admit any difficulty.
Actually, it wasn’t only him, most people were the same.
The more difficult things were, the more reluctant one was to open the mouth, gritting it with all their might between clenched teeth.
But once it was out, the person would seem to deflate and become breakable.
“No matter what, Xiaodong.” Da Huang drew a cigarette from the box and lit it.
“Whether you have tired or whatever else, that’s fine, you don’t have to keep the two studios.
Even if you tell me tomorrow you don’t want all three studios anymore, you got it.
We’re brothers, to the end of time.”
Da Huang had given Tao Xiaodong a lot of freedom over the years.
Tao Xiaodong didn’t have to consider the consequences before acting on his impulses, it was all up to him.
If he wanted to go, so be it.
If he wanted a new studio, so be it.
Because he had agreed to help his friend out, Da Huang would jovially go on a programme for him, no questions asked.
They were business partners, sure, but they were brothers first and foremost.
Tao Xiaodong snuffed out his cigarette, hacking so badly that his throat turned slightly hoarse.
He said, “Ge.
I can probably keep going for another year.
Take this year to make preparations.
After that, I’ll be stepping out completely.
I’ll hand over the business to you; you decide the future business direction.
I’ve been lucky to have a brother like you for so many years.”
Da Huang stood up, looking down at him.
“Then what about you”
Tao Xiaodong said, “”I’m leaving.
I don’t care anymore.
All good things must come to an end.”
Da Huang was practically grinning with rage.
He opened his mouth and then shut it, but ended up bursting anyway, “What the hell is with that last bit, are you leaving me your last words”
Tao Xiaodong was smiling now, too. Da Huang said, “Don’t go on all that nonsense with me over here, what with another year or two.
I’ll put it this way to you, Tao Xiaodong: I don’t care what is up with you, I won’t question you.
If you want to end our partnership and open a business with someone else or go do your own, that’s fine by me.
We can part ways amicably, but we’ll always be brothers.
But if you are stopping because something happened to you, whatever the ** that is, don’t go about drawing lines between yours and mine.
It’s pissing me off.
I’ll put it crudely.
Even if you die, you’re going to have to die here.”
Da Huang slammed the door on his way out, thoroughly pissed.
This should be the first time that he was flaring up at Tao Xiaodong, to that extent that he was swearing at him.
Tao Xiaodong normally appeared good-tempered, but in his youth, he actually had a stubborn streak as well, simply less obvious these days after deliberate effort to keep a lid on it. Da Huang was the most well aware of this point.
The others in the studio weren’t aware of the chat that they had upstairs.
However, they could still tell that Dong ge seemed to have a lot going on lately, always heading out and churning out tattoos.
Huan Ge was even delighted to see Dong ge being so diligent lately, clearing most of his outstanding jobs and catching up to speed.
He kept hovering around Tao Xiaodong like a silly goose every day, constantly going “Dong ge“, just shy of pulling out pom-poms.
Today, Tao Xiaodong did three tattoo jobs in a row.
Tang Suoyan came straight over after work to wait for him.
At the entrance, when the staff saw him coming, they hurriedly opened the door for him, welcoming, “Dr.
Tang is here!”
Tang Suoyan smiled at him and asked, “Which floor is Xiaodong on”
Tao Xiaodong, hearing him from upstairs, went ahead to holler, “I’m on the second floor, Yan ge.”
Tang Suoyan went up.
Tao Xiaodong inclined his head upwards at him.
“I’ll take a short while more.”
“No hurry.” Tang Suoyan placed a hand on his shoulder.
Xiao Tian moved a chair over for Tang Suoyan and passed him water.
Tang Suoyan sat there watching Tao Xiaodong work on the tattoo.
One could appreciate the charm of tattooing the more one watched the process; Tang Suoyan always liked to watch him whenever he came over, also going through his portfolio often.
The visual impact was very strong.
A person could sense the artist’s prowess and magnificence by looking at these.
“You might not be used to seeing something like this.” Tao Xiaodong glanced back at him with a slight smile on his face.
Today’s tattoo was a chaotic line spiralling around the neck in a complicated path from the collarbone to the chin that appeared like a hand-drawn doodle, inspiring feelings of agitation.
This was originally a ready-made flash tattoo uploaded into Tao Xiaodong’s portfolio just last week.
The client had ordered another artwork at first, but after glancing through his portfolio today while waiting for Tao Xiaodong, he changed his mind at the last minute.
“I like it.” Tang Suoyan confessed, “I couldn’t get what it was supposed to be at the start, but the more I look at it, the more exceptional it seems.”
The client had his neck craned so that Tao Xiaodong could access it better.
Hearing this, he said, “Isn’t it It hit me right in the feels the moment I saw it.”
Tao Xiaodong didn’t lift his head, merely asking him, “Is there anything troubling you”
“Oh, too much.” The client smiled mockingly at himself, “I can’t breathe under all the weight.
This tattoo kind of represents the way life is choking my windpipe.
I love it to bits.”
“So long as you like it,” Tao Xiaodong said lightly.
He was in such a rush to finish the tattoo that he worked for ten hours straight on it.
This was outside the norm as tattoo artists were prone to developing chronic conditions.
Tang Suoyan helped him massage his back and shoulders, working the kinks from his muscles.
Tao Xiaodong’s shoulder muscles were tightly bunched up, pain stealing the breath out of him.
“Does it hurt” Tang Suoyan asked him.
Tao Xiaodong sat in front of him, back facing Tang Suoyan, winded from the pain.
“I already told you last time not to work for such long stretches.” Tang Suoyan’s brows knit.
“Even watching you sit there made my shoulders feel stiff.
Did you not move the whole day”
As he admonished him, Tao Xiaodong listened submissively, not daring to say a word.
Knowing that the other was recently in a poor mood, now also seeing the piteous way he kept silent and the pained intakes of breath, Tang Suoyan couldn’t bear to keep going on.
After the massage, he continued to thump his back and shoulders to give him time to recover.
It was only then that Tao Xiaodong was able to let loose a breath and say, “I didn’t dare to say anything.
I was scared that if I talked back, you’d press harder.”
Tang Suoyan pushed himself up by pressing on Tao Xiaodong’s shoulders, hand swooping over to cup his chin after he did.
“You have lost some muscle definition with your weight loss.”
He was visibly skinnier, and the weight loss was even more distinctly felt when Tang Suoyan wrapped an arm around him as they slept at night.
Tao Xiaodong’s breathing was shallow.
He hadn’t been sleeping well these days.
Tang Suoyan pressed a kiss to the nape of his neck and gently called “Xiaodong.”
Tang Suoyan respected his wish not to say anything yet the last time; there were times when people would want to process their emotions alone, and keeping up the line of questioning would only aggravate the situation.
Therefore, during this period, since he was feigning that all was fine, Tang Suoyan played along with him, in this way letting him relax as much as possible without having to tense up in anticipation of questions from Tang Suoyan.
But with him losing weight day by day, Tang Suoyan’s patience was wearing thin with worry.
“Xiaodong,” repeated Tang Suoyan, voice featherlight as he asked, “what’s wrong”
Tao Xiaodong’s breathing was still shallow.
Silent, it almost seemed as though he was already asleep.
But after a while, his hand moved, covering the hands that Tang Suoyan wrapped around him, slowly rubbing his fingers and fingertips.
Sighing inwardly, Tang Suoyan stroked the back of his hand.
As Tang Suoyan hadn’t pressed the question, Tao Xiaodong could pretend that nothing was wrong at home.
But tonight he did ask, and it was as though the veneer of calm was disturbed, and Tao Xiaodong’s facade crumbled slightly.
He became very quiet the next morning, even a little absent-minded, his forced smiles fleeting as he spoke.
The matters that weighed on his heart were too heavy and too many for him to pull his lips into a smile.
Tang Suoyan was warming milk in the kitchen whilst Tao Xiaodong freshened up, but moments later, Tang Suoyan heard him hiss from the bathroom.
Tao Xiaodong was staring at a cut under his ear in the mirror.
The hand holding the razor shied away but nicked his ear instead, even cutting off a small patch of hair, and then he accidentally bumped the cut again when moving his hand away.
Startled, Tao Xiaodong frowned for a few seconds at his reflection before irately tossing the razor into the sink.
Tang Suoyan walked in and angled his face this way, using a piece of tissue to blot the blood that had oozed onto his chin.
Then, he wiped away the shaving foam that was still on his face and took out an electric razor from the cabinet.
Tao Xiaodong had never liked to use that, feeling that the electric razor couldn’t get the job done cleanly enough.
Neither of them spoke.
Tang Suoyan pressed the power switch, and the electric razor buzzed as it slid over Tao Xiaodong’s face.
Tao Xiaodong didn’t move.
He was watching Tang Suoyan.
He kept on looking and looking, and eventually, the rims of his eyes turned slightly red.